LIScareer.com
Career Strategies for Librarians
Finding Your Niche as a Youth Services Librarian
by Sophie R. Brookover

The field of youth services librarianship is so vast as to be daunting to all but the most focused new
librarian.  There are so many possible niches to fill – school librarian at the elementary, middle, and high
school levels; children’s librarian; young adult librarian; youth services specialist; and early childhood
librarian, to name a few – that it is not uncommon for youth-serving librarians to work in a variety of
positions before finding the area that suits them best.  The two major axes of choice fall along two lines:
school library vs. public library and children’s librarian vs. young adult librarian.   

School Library or Public Library?

First, there’s the school library vs. public library quandary, eloquently summed up by Jennifer Bromann’s
recent article in School Library Journal: “The decision. . . should take into account your professional
goals. Do you want to work with all age groups or focus on one? Do you want to create fun programming
or plan instruction on the use of databases and answer technology questions? Do you want easy
access to the same students or exposure to new faces each day? These are some of the key questions
to consider.”1

If you’re a library school student deciding between school or public library work, find out if your school
offers a mentoring or job-shadowing program, which would allow you to get an up-close view of a day or
even a week in the lives of working public and school librarians.  Nothing beats real-world experience,
so take advantage of any opportunities you may have to see what it’s really like to work in both types of
jobs.  If you’re already working in either a school or public library and are experiencing grass-is-
greeneritis, contact your state- or regional-level professional associations and ask if they maintain a list
of members willing to let you shadow them for a few days, or even just a few hours, at their place of
work.  If you can’t put together a job-shadowing experience, a good alternative is an informational
interview, which can be conducted in person, via telephone, e-mail, or instant messenging.    

Children’s or Young Adult?

Much like the question of school vs. public librarianship, the choice to work as a Youth Services librarian
or to specialize in Children’s or Young Adult services is one best decided by weighing preferences and
experience.  Questions to consider include:  do you consider yourself a generalist or a specialist?  Are
you interested in serving a broad age and developmental range of patrons, or would you prefer to focus
your energies on programming and literature for a particular age group?  Can you see yourself juggling
a toddler storytime in the morning with a Teen Advisory Board meeting in the evening?  

It’s not unusual to explore a variety of positions within youth services.  Many of us will spend a few years
trying out a few different jobs before settling into the one that best meets our professional goals and
interests.  I chose to work in public libraries because I wanted to work in a field where being a generalist
was an asset, but quickly found that I needed to specialize, as much for personal job satisfaction as to
gain a sense of professional expertise.  

My first position as a Youth Services librarian involved serving children and teens from birth to age 18, as
well as their parents and caregivers.  I gained a solid base of general experience – planning storytimes
and programs for toddlers and older kids, working with a Teen Advisory Board, doing collection
development for ages 0-18 – but I found it difficult to develop a specific area of expertise.  I also realized
that although I enjoyed working with younger kids, my heart was in young adult services, so I decided to
trade breadth for depth and am now a Children’s Librarian for Teens in a department that, like my
previous library’s, serves kids of all ages and their families.  My department is larger, so I focus my
collection development and programming efforts on young adults.  I like being the go-to woman for teen
issues, and I enjoy the freedom that comes with knowing that I can ask my colleagues who specialize in
picture books or juvenile fiction for assistance when I need it.  

Some librarians come to the field after working in another profession and then find their niche
immediately.  Diane Tucillo, now the Young Adult Coordinator for the City of Mesa (AZ) Library, started
working towards her MLS after three years as an English teacher.  She’s always worked with teens, and
encourages librarians to be flexible, noting that in her 23 years at Mesa, “the job has changed somewhat
around me, and my title has changed a few times. When I started, I was in charge of a separate YA
Department, which was eventually absorbed into Youth Services as staff which was needed and
unfunded elsewhere in the system was gleaned from YA.”  

Others come to the field in a more roundabout way, like Melissa Rabey, Teen Librarian at Brandywine
Hundred Library in Wilmington (DE), who first planned a career “at an academic library, as either a
cataloger or a systems librarian.”  She now splits her time between two libraries in her system:  “At one
library, I’m the teen librarian, but also work on the Children’s Reference Desk and thus interact with
children of all ages as well as their parents.  At the other library, I’m responsible for all youth services
programs, as well as being responsible for teen collection development.”  Jennie Garner, Teen Librarian
and Assistant Director at the North Liberty (IA) Community Library, “started [her career] as a journalist,
and then as a stay-at-home mom.  [She] started volunteering at the local library and fell in love with it.”    

Advice From The Field

If you choose to follow a career path serving youth, you will have a host of options from which to choose.  
To keep this embarrassment of riches in perspective, and to prepare for a leadership role in your library,
bear in mind some good all-around advice from professionals in the field that will benefit you regardless
of which path you take.

Diane Tuccillo recommends that library school students “get all the credentials you can get that will
qualify you for the highest level of positions you think you might want to achieve.  It is hard to go back and
do it later!  Then, once you get where you want to be, you can concentrate on being a lifelong learner.  
You can take special training, attend seminars and workshops and take continuing education
coursework to keep up with your knowledge and skills.”  

And because you never know when you may be called on to represent your library in the community at
large, and with that in mind, Jennie Garner recommends taking “management courses and classes
dealing with people skills and public speaking.” Regardless of what area of youth services librarianship
you choose to work in, Tuccillo's and Garner's words of advice are highly practical.  This highlights the
fact that regardless of your field of specialization, it is crucial to seek out opportunities to learn portable
skills that can be transferred from across jobs and across specializations.

Note:

1. Keep in mind, too, the importance of state certification.  Most states require that applicants for school
media specialist positions attain teacher certification.  A chart of state-by-state certification standards,
published by School Library Journal in December, 2003, is available here, and the American Library
Association provides a state-by-state list of School Library Media education programs which meet
NCATE-AASL standards.   

About the Author:

Sophie Brookover is a Senior Children's Librarian specializing in YA Services at the Camden County
Library in Voorhees, NJ, and is the author of the weblog Pop Goes the Library.  

Article published Sept 2004

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.